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The COVID-19 crisis has led to a renewed understanding that science is important across all areas of Government and will help boost science’s role in policy-making in future, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said at this year's RSB’s Parliamentary Links Day.

Speaking at the event, which brings together politicians and representatives from a range of STEM disciplines, Sir Patrick also said the events of the last six months had improved trust in science and the way science is understood by politicians and the public.

“I do think that there is an absolute understanding inside Government now that science is important in all sorts of areas of Government,” Sir Patrick said. “Where previously, you were pushing hard to get science heard, I do not think that will be the case going forward, and I think that will be to the benefit of a lot of Government and the policies that come out.”

Links Day is one of the biggest and longest-running science events in the Parliamentary calendar, with speakers and panellists contributing via video-link this year.

This year the theme was ‘Public Trust in Science’, with discussions dominated by the high-profile research and scientific advice that has been central to the UK’s pandemic response.

Despite technical difficulties with the broadcast meaning registrants could not watch the discussions live, questions were relayed to the speakers and some interviews from the event are already available on the RSB’s YouTube channel. The rest of the event will be uploaded on the 28th July. 

Responding to questions Sir Patrick said the Government was wrong to initially keep the advice of the SAGE advisory board and the names of its members secret, but that the transparency shown since and further openness in sharing research and data would help boost trust and understanding and improve local policy responses.

“Actually once the papers [on SAGE’s scientific advice] are out there, the noise goes down, not up. So one of the lessons I think for the Government is to always get things out there – getting the truth out there is much easier than it sitting there while people can make up stuff about it.”

Greg Clark, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, said there had been “a rehabilitation of the role of experts,” thanks to the prominence of scientists on television and huge interest from the public in their work. 

“I’ve heard some sneering criticism of ‘armchair epidemiologists’, but I think it’s good that people are interested and have been exposed to scientific discourse, and scientists, and the debates on all sorts of scientific questions about the virus... I do think that the level of trust and confidence in science is certainly surviving and being built on during the crisis.”

Clark said that large numbers of people had watched the Government’s scientific advisors being questioned by his select committee live on the BBC and Sky, and commended public health experts for taking part.

“It’s gratifying that the hearings have attracted so much attention. Even though the scientists have a lot on their plate, it is important that we learn the lessons on the way, including those that can be applied later in the pandemic. Being able to ask not just one but 10 questions on a particular topic is something that is unique to a select committee.”

This year’s Links Day also saw panel discussions involving Professor Dame Anne Glover from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan from the Royal Society, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell from the Council for Science & Technology and Sir David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge University.

Ramakrishnan said that the public’s “near complete compliance with lockdown,” despite its economic and social costs, “showed the trust that the public placed on scientific advice.”

He said scientists must continue their efforts to reduce conflicts of interest, increase transparency, and avoid group-think in order to uphold public confidence. “When we are rewarded by this trust we must show ourselves to be trustworthy. We must be clear that uncertainty is part and parcel of science and not blame science or scientists when the conclusions or the evidence changes.”

Links Day, now in its 33rd year, is run by the Royal Society of Biology on behalf of the following organisations: Biochemical Society, British Ecological Society, British Pharmacological Society, British Society for Immunology, Council for the Mathematical Sciences, Genetics Society, Geological Society, Institute of PhysicsNutrition Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Society of EdinburghSociety for Applied Microbiology, Society for Experimental Biology, and The Physiological Society.

Videos from the event will be available in full from the 28th July - subscribe to the RSB's YouTube channel to be notified when it goes live.

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